Children Deserve Horror Content Made For Them
by Xan Holbrook
Mark Kermode (the BBC’s film critic in residence) is, in many ways, the horror fan’s horror fan. One topic he loves to explore again and again is that of paedophobic horror, or horror with a child antagonist. Using the examples of A Clockwork Orange, The Exorcist and We Need to Talk About Kevin, he summarized the anxieties surrounding children thus:
“The terror surrounding children is not that they’re thugs, hooligans, maniacs, rioters or whatever – the real fear is that they’re smarter than us.”
I’d like to take this idea one step further, and say that children and young people are the most astute consumers of horror. The 80s river of schlock required the keen observations of the young to send it up, and eventually supplant it. If nothing else, how else would the horror genre sustain itself, if not for the demographic of teenagers?
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And yet, the youngest viewers are the hungriest for horror, and the quickest to see its many charms. Not that you could convince any parents of this, and even more ironic that so many more, after the infuriating inundations of Peppa Pig, Paw Patrol, and In The Night Garden, would actually welcome a seam of morbidity into their homes.
Childhood, as William Blake understood it, is a place of terror. So far from a place of carefree wonder, it is the place when terror is most acutely felt.
It’s even more puzzling as, at one point, junior horror was a staple of afternoon television and pre-teen literature. Not that I’ve ever been one to romanticize the past, but this need was well-catered-to when I was younger.
American children’s television can be terrifying in and of itself, but at one point, it had the junior horror market near wired and trussed (save for some certain Australian lunatics, God bless them all).
Goosebumps stoked the fear and imaginations of children the world over, and Are You Afraid of the Dark? can still reduce some of today’s gorehounds and creepers to gibbering wrecks (R.L. Stine, you’ll be pleased to know, is still writing).
Part of the reason these were so popular was not just the shared experience of a life-affirming scare (to quote Mark Kermode again), but also their format. True to the form of much classic horror, any books were novellas or short story collections and, on television, they were always portmanteau, without fail.
This was a double whammy – not only would the stories be readily consumable and quick, befitting M.R. James’ notion of a ghost story being a pleasing terror, but that they were cut from the cloth of classic horror, and followed the format of Dead of Night, Asylum, Black Sabbath and Dr. Terrible’s House of Horrors.
Which leads me back to the question of where all these shows, and their like, went?
You’ll notice that these shows aired immediately pre-9/11, a moment of such trauma that much fiction simply crumbles to nothing. Just as there is no great horror novel to come from the first and second world wars, so the War on Terror and its pornography of suicide bombings, video executions, and institutional torture would outclass even the most gifted horror writers. Even the odd flourish such as American Horror Story proved itself unwieldy, and has been tottering under its own weight for a good few seasons now.
The future lies in what Shudder TV calls Horror Noire, or the imaginariums of Black, Hispanic, and Native America. Jordan Peele’s fantastic catalogue is a welcome step in the right direction, as is the work of Guillermo Del Toro. The capacity for darkness and imagination is not limited to the Victorian stately home, or the blonde babysitter fending off the axe murderer, and the scales seems to be shifting in the right direction. All of which leads me to another great fermentation.
American children are indeed under siege. In their name, more and more censorship and curtailing of personal freedom is encouraged.
Behind their faces lies a generation born of, and into, anxiety. Taught in schools that hold drills for active shooters, lest one day one of their own prowls the corridors. Held hostage by bullies who don’t even leave them alone when they’re at home, thanks to the shadowy data farmers at Facebook and Snapchat. Feeling the planet they depend on heating up, and the natural web that previous generations depended upon being hacked to pieces, sold off, or left to rot. Knowing that, despite their teacher’s proclamations, that no one in their class will be president, or even the manager at an Arby’s.
The time is right to bring horror back to children, for them to make up their own nightmares to make sense of, and banish, the real ones.